A Case of Blackmail in Belgravia (2016) is the first of a series of five books (so far) featuring Freddie Pilkington-Soames and set in 1920s–1930s London (at least the first is in London). Freddie was first introduced in another series by the author, the Angela Marchmont mysteries some of which I’ve read and enjoyed very much. In that series he and his set came across as something almost from Wodehouse—I even thought of him as a version of Freddie Threepwood but with brains, for this Freddie can solve mysteries and is not left astounded simply reading them. Freddie Pilkington-Soames is a reporter on the Clarion, I think at his mother’s (who ‘secretly’ writes a gossip column on the paper) bidding, though they are very much a part of the society elite.
This adventure opens not with Freddie but his mother, attending a birthday party at a fashionable London restaurant with other society elite—the party is for Nicholas ‘Ticky’ Maltravers who seems to be at the centre of society at every party and gathering. But one gets the sense that people aren’t quite as fond of him as they make out. At the end of the party when Ticky heads home, he happens to share a taxi with Cynthia, Freddie mother. He is unwell on the way and when they reach Cynthia’s home, Ticky drops down dead at the doorstep. Cynthia panics and when Freddie happens to arrive there (back from another party and rather drunk), she convinces him to take the corpse away. Next morning, it is discovered not in front of Ticky’s own home but his neighbour’s, and soon enough, the police are involved for Ticky has been poisoned. Freddie of course realises that he and his mother will be in a fair bit of trouble for while they may be innocent of the murder (he is a little unsure about that too), they have tampered with the body. So it seems he must investigate the matter himself and find the real murderer before he and Cynthia are drawn into the whole matter. Looking into the case, Freddie finds that Ticky was not at all liked by his ‘friends’ and they were so only for a reason, and more than one wished him dead. But which of them had a strong enough reason to actually kill him?
In the Angela Marchmont books, Freddie Pilkington-Soames adds a comic touch while also certainly helping Angela solve the mystery. That comic touch continues in this book as well, his solo adventure, but being a mystery of course, there are the more serious touches—it isn’t policemen’s helmets that are being stolen or hidden as in Wodehouse but bodies, and the blackmail is not silly but sinister. Still despite the more serious murder investigation, the tone remains fairly light, and the opening sequence of Freddie rushing about with the body in his toy cart is pretty funny (even though it is a body).
Freddie does a fairly good job of investigating, though the police aren’t as unaware of things as he thinks they are. But he does have an advantage over them, his social standing being what it is, for while those involved may not be likely to open up to the police (most are glad Ticky is out of the way), they will more likely speak to him. While he is initially more keen only on clearing his and his mother’s name or rather averting suspicion away from them, a pretty young lady convinces him that they need to solve the mystery as well for leaving it unanswered would simply not do, for any of them (her mother was also at the said dinner party). Cynthia on the other hand, after putting all the responsibility on him, is content to put everything out of her mind. She is rather a handful actually!
The mystery itself wasn’t particularly complicated and though I didn’t guess whodunit right at the start, it was quite clear some way in. Even though the author didn’t weave in any unexpected twists at the end, I still found it enjoyable enough and the solution pretty satisfactory. (I was reminded of an Agatha Christie by it, in fact.) More than the mystery, it is the general 1920s atmosphere and comic touches that the reader enjoys.
I don’t know if I would say that I enjoyed this one as much as the Angela Marchmont books but it was still a quick, light, and fun read!